The designer Werner Aisslinger is known for his deep love of innovation and high-tech materials. He thrives on new technologies, both as a product designer, making furniture from industrial foams, and as an interior architecture, crafting unique spaces like the fashionable Standard Hotel in New York, which towers over the High Line park.
But he says design will not be enough for the hotels of the future: they must become tellers of stories and sellers of experiences.
House of Wonders is an exhibition created by Mr. Aisslinger at the Neue Pinakothek gallery in Munich. It’s an apt name for his vision of the hotel of the future, which he says must become even “more magical and more astonishing than hotels of the past,” thanks to the emergence of Airbnb and other sharing-economy rivals.
One highlight of Mr. Aisslinger’s work as a hotel designer is his remarkable 25hours Hotel Bikini Berlin, located near the city’s zoo and close to the historic Kurfürstendamm shopping street. Accor, among the world’s largest hotel businesses and owner of chains such as Sofitel, Novotel, Mercure and Ibis, recently bought 30 percent of the hotel.
Mr. Aisslinger was not surprised: big chains are looking to the future of the hotel business, he says. Instead of selling a cheap, homogenous product they want to create real experiences and real connections to their host cities. In a hotel like the Bikini Berlin, the connection is built into the hotel’s fabric: the reception desk is crafted from original 1924 tiles from the city’s subway system.
“The astonishing thing is that a lot of big-city five-star hotels are not thriving. They exist in order to increase their value as real estate.”
Location is still crucial for any hotel, said Mr. Aisslinger, but location could have unwanted impacts on the hotel business. “The astonishing thing is that a lot of big-city five-star hotels are not thriving. They exist for tactical reasons: in order to increase their value as real estate.” He described many historic hotels as “Trojan horses — decorative arrangements, which will maintain the site’s value.”
Design is not what it once was, he says: “Twenty years ago, design hotels were something special, but today good design is almost standard, even in a chain like Motel One.” Today, what can make a difference is the narrative a hotel can tell. “Of course, you want nice chairs, but really it is about transmitting experiences, so guests can find themselves in an unfamiliar, remarkable world,” he says.
His design for the 25hours Hotel Bikini focuses on a narrative of the “urban jungle.” On one side of the hotel is Berlin’s urban jungle, on the other, an actual tract of jungle: Berlin’s zoo’s ape and elephant enclosures. The legendary “Jungle” nightclub was once a nearby fixture on Berlin’s urban landscape. Exploiting this local feature was a very different tactic to those used by chains like Motel One, which efficiently apply the same successful concept in every location.
In creating a hotel with authentic experience, local people had to be attracted to the hotel, added Mr. Aisslinger: “You don’t want to sit in a bar only with visiting businessmen. The Monkey Bar at the Berlin Bikini also attracts locals to hang out, eat and drink,” he added. But sometimes this was done to excess: at the Standard Hotel in New York, its glitzy rooftop bar is so popular with New York celebrities that it is now off-limits even to high-paying hotel guests, said the 53-year old designer.
Design faults could not always be blamed on designers, said Mr. Aisslinger. “Of course, the designer is responsible for some faults. But the basic situation is often complicated, with investors and tenants to take into account,” he said. “Contracts often run to hundreds of pages, covering every last detail. If a designer says we need good lamps in the bathroom, investors may say, ‘OK, then you’ll pay for it with savings elsewhere’,” he added.
Nonetheless, hotel design is a reliable business for a designer. “If I design a chair, I only earn money if and when it comes onto the market,” he said. Hotel design is different: “It’s nice to have contracts and concrete schedules.” Designing interiors can also mean working as a product designer, creating furnishings specifically for that environment.
These days a designer’s job is more about a sort of collage than about creating a total environment down to the last detail, Mr. Aisslinger said. “Designers are more DJs than composers these days: we make a new potpourri of existing architecture, ideas, and current and vintage design. Like people do in their own homes,” he said.
On his own travels, the designer looks for light and atmosphere more than furnishings. Authentic local identity, even if eccentric, is more important than a huge selection of shampoos, he said. In any case, as a guest, he wanted to make the room his own. “As soon as I arrive, I put away all the stuff they leave out — the breakfast menu, the TV channel guides, all that. I travel light, but with the things I have, I make the room my own.”
Some people travel with a scarf to drape over the lamps in a hotel room. A good idea, agreed Mr. Aisslinger, who said hotel lighting had deteriorated in recent years, as hotels replaced cosy 40-watt bulbs with lurid LED and fluorescent lights. “Sometimes I just unscrew the bulbs,” he said.
The lobby is a crucial space for any good hotel, said Mr. Aisslinger. Even the spacious lobby of a big-city hotel needed to convey an air of privacy and cosyness. But technical demands made the task increasingly difficult: “A space that is theoretically 4.60 meters tall may in fact only be 4 meters, once technical infrastructure is fitted.” Nonetheless, a great hotel lobby can overcome all of this, radiating an air of elegance and refinement, the designer added.
This article originally appeared in the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org